Originally Published: June 30, 2014 6:01 a.m.
PRESCOTT - After centuries of thriving in the Prescott National Forest, the massive alligator juniper near the base of Granite Mountain was in jeopardy. 2013's Doce wildfire was raging, and the ancient tree was in its path.
Late that June - just days before they died fighting another wildfire - Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots made an extra effort to protect the tree, digging a fire line around it, cutting the brush at its base, and starting a back burn.
The tree, which Prescott College Environmental Studies Professor Doug Hulmes estimates could be as old at 1,800 years, survived. Today, remains of charred trees surround the juniper, showing evidence of the Hotshots' back burn.
Efforts currently are under way to memorialize the tree beyond the "co-champion" status it already has through the Arizona State Forestry Division's Magnificent Trees program, which designates it as one of the largest of its kind in the state (at 53 feet high, 31 feet in circumference, and 77 feet crown spread).
Hulmes and former Prescott National Forest Supervisor Mike King have been working toward another Magnificent Tree program status - a Heritage Tree designation. They submitted the proposal more than a month ago, and received positive feedback, Hulmes said, although a final decision is still pending.
He explained that the "heritage" status is given to trees that have a cultural significance in the community. The Arizona State Forestry Division's website notes that Heritage Trees are significant for a number of reasons. Among them: being a "cherished community tree where significant events occur."
And, judging by a quartz-rock heart, quartz cross, horseshoe cross, and other tributes that lie at the base of the tree, the alligator juniper has become a cherished place of remembrance.
"It's become kind of a living memorial," said Hulmes, who recently took a group of visiting Norwegian students to the tree to help document it. While there, Hulmes' group ran into surviving Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough, who explained to the students the Hotshots' role in saving the tree. Hulmes said he heard later from students who referred to their visit to the juniper tree as the most memorable part of their trip.
This past week, a U.S. Forest Service crew was working at the site of the tree to build a concrete plaque that would further memorialize the Hotshots' history with the mammoth juniper.
Bradshaw District Ranger Linda Jackson said the plaque will explain the Hotshots' dedication to the tree. "It tells the story of what they did out there, and why," she said.
"The tree was really important to them, and (saving it) was one of the last things they did with us," Jackson added. "Knowing how important the saving of that tree was, we wanted to honor them by displaying a plaque there. It will be in memory of them."
Forest Service Fire Staff Officer Pete Gordon emphasized the emotional attachment the Forest Service has with the tree, and he urges any visitors to "tread lightly."
"This is more than just a tree," Gordon said. "We ask people to please, please respect the environmental conditions. We're worried about the tree being stressed."
The loss of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots generated many such heartfelt memorials in the weeks and months after the tragedy.
One of the first memorials involved a wildland firefighter statue that came to Prescott as a gift from firefighters in Boise, Idaho. For weeks, the large bronze stood in front of Prescott's Fire Station 7, the Sixth Street home of the Hotshots.
Soon, however, the fire department sought a site for the statue that would provide better visibility and parking for the public. They chose Fire Station 71, at 333 White Spar Road.
The statue has since been moved to the new site, and will soon be joined by another memorial from across the country.
This past fall, on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, members of the local fire department traveled to New York City to accept a sapling from a pear tree that had survived the attack on the World Trade Center.
Saplings from the "Survivor Tree" went to three communities that had suffered tragedies in the past year, including Prescott, the Far Rockaway neighborhood of New York City, hit by Superstorm Sandy, and Boston, Mass., after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Although the presentation occurred during a New York Mets baseball game, Prescott Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes reported this week that the sapling has yet to be delivered to Prescott.
Baynes, who offered early on to have his department handle the planting of the tree, said the fire department expects the delivery of the sapling in September or October of this year.
The fall months are the best time to plant the tree, Baynes said, which is likely the reason for the delay in delivery.
When it does arrive, Baynes expects the tree to be planted in an area that has already been prepared for it at the White Spar Road Fire Station. Recreation Services staffers trained in landscaping will handle the planting.
Hotshots Burial Site
Improvements were almost complete last week at the site in the Pioneers Home Cemetery in Prescott where 10 of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots are buried next to each other.
Two firefighter and Hotshot family support groups, the 100 Club of Arizona and Professional Firefighters of Arizona, contracted and paid to build the improvements this month with the blessing of the families.
All 19 of the fallen Hotshots will have plots with bronze grave markers that are etched with images from family photos. All but two were installed by Wednesday.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots Burial Site is covered with brick pavers and artificial turf, all surrounded by a two-foot-high staircased wall where people can sit while paying their respects.
The flags of the U.S., Arizona and the Granite Mountain Hotshots fly over the site. A granite bench is etched with the Hotshot's Prayer and the names of the fallen. A granite monument is planned for the near future.
There is room for approximately 20 family members to be buried alongside their sons and husbands.
Yarnell memorial site
A Yarnell Hill Fire Memorial Park in Yarnell is in the planning stages.
Community leaders decided to move a memorial that members of the Type I firefighting team battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire created last July. It features kiosks with information about the 19 fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots and hotshots in general.
The kiosks previously sat on private land along the east side of Highway, where visitors could see the flag on the site to the west where the Hotshots died. A solar light keeps the flag illuminated 24 hours a day.
The kiosks are now located on a lower site on the west side of Highway 89 at the Shrine Road.
The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is helping Yarnell design the memorial park at a discounted cost, Yarnell Recovery Group President Chuck Tidey said. Swift (Trucking) Charities is donating the public restrooms.
The architecture school is scheduled to present some design ideas to the community on July 9.
The memorial will not only honor the 19 fallen firefighters, but also the approximately 200 people who lost 127 homes (updated count) in the fire and all the residents who had to run for their lives, Tidey said.
Hotshots death site
The Arizona Legislature this year appropriated money to buy the state trust land site where the Granite Mountain Hotshots perished on the Yarnell Hill wildfire. Rep. Karen Fann of Prescott sponsored the legislation.
The bill also authorizes the creation of an ad-hoc group to decide what kind of memorial, if any, to build at the site. Right now it has a lighted flag and temporary fencing. It's located just west of Yarnell, about 30 miles south of Prescott.
The group also will decide whether the state should try to buy land for road access to the site. Right now the only public access is via a rugged hike.
Fann said she has submitted proposed membership on the group to the Senate and House leaders and is waiting for approval.
The group's meetings will be public, although Fann is planning a private meeting with the Hotshots' families about the site first.
"That's important to find out their wishes," Fann said.